1. Blips
    Offline

    Blips Member

    Joined:
    Aug 14, 2010
    Messages:
    54
    Likes Received:
    0

    Fictional Slang

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Blips, Aug 14, 2010.

    Hey everyone,

    I'm new to the forums and so far it looks like it could be a really helpful resource / community.

    I'm currently working on writing a novel, one that I'd like to get published in the future but since I'm doing this as a hobby (and since this is my first serious attempt at writing) I won't be terribly upset if I never see any money from it.

    The story is set approx 30 years in the future in a dystopian, cyber-punk-ish setting. Due to how much the culture and living conditions have changed, I have a strong urge to introduce slang that would be unique to the universe / setting.

    My problem is, how do I use fictional slang without breaking the flow and adding exposition to explain words to the reader? I thought of maybe just including a glossary, but then thought that forcing the reader to skip to a glossary would be even more intrusive.

    Any thoughts or help would be wonderful!
     
  2. Banzai
    Offline

    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 31, 2007
    Messages:
    12,871
    Likes Received:
    150
    Location:
    Reading, UK
    It depends on the usage really. If it's readily understandable to a reader then it might not get in the way. It might even enhance it. If not, it will get in the way, and make it more difficult and hamper the flow.

    I personally think that a glossary more than a few words would be a clumsy appendage, but others (particularly readers of fantasy) may disagree with me there.

    What often works well is fictional expletives. Looking at, for example, "frack" in Battlestar Galactica, or the many fictional swearwords in something like Farscape, it works because it's immediately apparent what the meaning is, and it doesn't dominate the dialogue.

    Realistically, it's going to be a fine line. The thing to do would be have someone who knows nothing about the slang to read a piece (or all) of your novel, to gauge how well it integrates, as it'll be difficult for you to tell reading it yourself.
     
  3. Blips
    Offline

    Blips Member

    Joined:
    Aug 14, 2010
    Messages:
    54
    Likes Received:
    0
    Thanks for you input. I'm definitely going to try and keep things to a minimum (and almost entirely avoid acronyms whenever possible).

    I remember Stephen King used many fictional words in the Dark Tower Series - I just can't remember how he introduced them.
     
  4. Elgaisma
    Offline

    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 12, 2010
    Messages:
    5,337
    Likes Received:
    92
    With mine I have used everyday words that convey the meaning but are not really common everyday slang in 2010 - like the teenagers use volcanic if someone is angry.
     
  5. Banzai
    Offline

    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 31, 2007
    Messages:
    12,871
    Likes Received:
    150
    Location:
    Reading, UK
    In The Dark Tower, a lot of the fictional terminology King used was recognisable analogous to its real-world counterpart, so a reader could easily approximate what it meant (i.e. "Thankee sai" was plainly "Thank you sir", recognisable from context, but also from the words themselves). This makes fictional terminology a lot less intrusive.

    What King was also able to do, was explain the meanings. Because some characters came from what was ostensibly our world, phrases that the reader would encounter difficulty with those characters would also struggle understanding, so they could be explained within the story. But this wouldn't necessarily be a good road to go down, it depends whether it's something you could incorporate believably into your own story.
     
  6. HeinleinFan
    Offline

    HeinleinFan Banned

    Joined:
    Jan 6, 2007
    Messages:
    483
    Likes Received:
    33
    Several ways you can do this. Obviously any combination of the following should help.

    1) Use variants on words we already have. Mail became electronic mail became e-mail became email in our world. Cellular phone became cell or just phone. Access was first a noun, then a verb; now we have "accessway." So if you have a culture with different slang, you can use words the readers will be familiar with -- for example, "loader" might mean someone who downloads, someone who is too obsessed with media or the internet. Maybe someone who uses the internet as an escape and who doesn't, therefore, get stuff done in real life. So you could use "loader" a few times, in context, and pretty soon your readers will link "loader" to both "download" and "freeloader." Later on, you can use loader without much context, and the reader will get it. That, my friend, is success.

    2) Switch up "proper" grammar. "Whassup?" is perhaps not quite what you're going for, but you can have a character ask another one, "Joey. The where are you going?" or "Joey going where, hey?" As long as you are consistent, this can add great flavor to your writing. (I've seen it done quite well in published books such as S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy and Abercrombie's The Blade Itself.)

    3) Different characters may use differing levels of slang. You can show how teenagers and techies use one kind of slang, and how the older generation uses different or less slang. You can have a character consciously change the way she speaks when she moves from work to hanging out with her buds on the weekend.

    4) Use slang to indicate a particular context. What I mean here is, if you use a slang word -- oh, let's use kaleeer -- to indicate a person who suffered brain damage or physical damage when a computer part failed or shorted, then keep using that slang in that context. I don't mean that you should use that word in every paragraph, but you can have a brief explanation the first time your characters encounter a kaleeer. Next chapter, if it comes up again, use the word once or twice to keep the association. Much, much later, if you've sprinkled your slang words into the story in key places, you can have a character talk about kaleeer and not only need no explanation, but also rely on the reader to understand the connotations that word has.

    By the way, if you haven't read Watership Down yet, you should do so. Think of it as a lesson from the master, Richard Adams, to his apprentice: you. The rabbits in that book use slang often enough that by the end, one rabbit insults another character with the phrase "Silflay hraka, u embleer hrah!" and it not only makes perfect sense, but the reader can piece it together without having seen that exact phrase appear anywhere else in the book. And if you're worried that it's about rabbits, don't be. It isn't, any more than LoTR is about a short hairy man and his jewelry, or than Heart of Darkness is about a bunch of trees and a guy on a boat. Read it.

    5) In small doses, exposition is fine. In fact, there are many books where the characters outright state their conclusions and their reasoning to the reader, and we don't mind. This is frequently because the exposition is only a few sentences, and because the character's voice is maintained; a hardbitten cynic will remain cynical in his explanation, just as a light happy fluffy guy will be very light and fluffy when he explains the term. We are used to authors explaining the layout of a room, the workings of some odd device, or the reasons Person A finds to hate Person B. Readers will be okay with a little explanation here and there, honest.

    6) Try to have a reason for each term. Maybe it's a useful word because it describes a social working that English doesn't have a good word for. (Schedenfreude is an example; English borrowed it from German because English didn't have a term for "pleasure derived from another's pain" except sadism, and sadism is clumsy and unhelpful because sadism implies you actually harmed the other guy yourself.) Maybe it's a useful word because of the connontations it gives. (Connotations are really, really important as flavoring for your world.) Maybe it is a word for a technology that we just don't have, so you literally can't use a modern term for it.

    But have a reason. Don't throw words in willy-nilly.

    7) Related to number 6. You may want to start out with a short list of words that fit your world and the tone you want to convey. Say, ten words, or fifteen. And limit yourself to those slang terms for the first five chapters, at least, or the first 20,000 words. Why? Because it forces you to limit how quickly you throw terms at the unsuspecting reader, and it makes you take a good hard look at whether your new slang word is really necessary, if there's a good old regular English one that will work just as well.

    8) Plan on a glossary, but don't rely on it. In theory, you want your readers to go through your book from page 1 to the end, and understand the slang without help. You should write with that as your goal. This doesn't mean you can't be subtle; if you want, assume that the reader is free to jot down each term on a notebook paper to keep it fresh in her mind. But the point is, if your average reader and her helpful memory-jogging notebook can't figure out what you're saying, you need to write more clearly.

    And add the glossary at the end anyway. Some of us have bad memories, or read English as a second language and need help. But don't use it as a crutch; your writing has to stand on its own two feet.

    Lastly. The slang will be weird for the reader. It probably won't be for your character. You can have them explain things, but remember that they themselves won't be surprised by the slang terms. This doesn't mean they'll know everything; they can run across other groups who use different slang, and be confused. But it will be fully a part of their world, and hopefully of their society. Don't forget that.

    (This disclaimer is probably unnecessary, but I have seen bad published authors set up a situation where both members of a conversation supposedly know each other, talk all the time, are good friends... and then one of them uses his "typical" nickname and the other guy is confused, hasn't heard that nickname before. Uh, no. Bad author. *strikes author on head with copy of book* So don't do that with your slang. It's part of the world, and so shouldn't be any more unexpected than doors or coathooks or a guy smoking a cigar on the streetcorner.)

    Best of luck.
     
  7. Sang Hee
    Offline

    Sang Hee Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Aug 5, 2010
    Messages:
    226
    Likes Received:
    7
    Location:
    Sweden
    I would skip glossay if I were you. The way how to explain unknown words is in context to make the readers kinda figure out themselves.
    Just try to read some sci-fi novels and find an inspiration. I've seen kinda good examples in Starcraft Ghost: Nova and some Warhammer 40K novels.
     
  8. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    I wrote a short story called Recruitment, with invented slang, for one of the short story competitions here. I used just enough invented slang to give the sense of a near-future subculture. I didn't use a glossary, or explain the terms explicitly, but tried to use context to define the new words.
     
  9. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,722
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Wow. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. He writes a futuristic slang with no apologies and complete confidence, borrowing a lot from Russian.

    Read it. Or at least see the movie.

    Also, I've mentioned this before, but look at Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's not future slang, but it is a version of English appropriate to its time and place presented also with complete confidence.
     
  10. TerraIncognita
    Offline

    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

    Joined:
    May 28, 2010
    Messages:
    1,339
    Likes Received:
    40
    Location:
    Texas
    Beat me to it.. :p That's what I was going to say use context to explain them.
     
  11. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    A Clockwork Orange is a fairly extreme example. I wouldn't present it as a how-to example; many readers have found it difficult to read. It is an excellent and ambitious work of fiction, but a bit too thick linguistically to be a good model to emulate.

    As for Huck Finn, his speech was contemporary slang at the time. It may make it more challenging for us, but is no guide for the technique of inserting synthetic slang into a story.

    Phillip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is probably a better example. The slang is there, but it doesn't slam you over the head.
     
  12. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,722
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I was just offering them as examples of famous and celebrated works that use fictional slang without glossaries, or stopping to explain meanings to the reader. It can be done without compromise. That was my point.

    I do agree that these are ambitious works and it takes a firm commitment on the part of the author to write like this consistently through an entire novel. But it can be done, and has been done successfully.
     
  13. Blips
    Offline

    Blips Member

    Joined:
    Aug 14, 2010
    Messages:
    54
    Likes Received:
    0
    Again, thanks for all of the feedback. HeinleinFan: thanks for taking the time to write that giant (helpful) list.

    The concept of writing while making no apologies to reader really appeals to me. I think I'm going to peruse that to a certain degree.

    I'll avoid using completely foreign acronyms but I'm not going to hold the reader's hand either as I introduce new words. I'll definitely try and grow most of the slang from real-world words to a certain extent but will attempt to naturally explain their meaning as the story progresses.

    I can't remember the exact term for using characters unfamiliar with a situation / setting (as Banzai was describing with The Dark Tower) in order to get the opportunity to define new words / concepts to the reader (or watcher, as it was done in Inception) but unfortunately that won't be an option to me.
     
  14. Storysmith
    Offline

    Storysmith Member

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2014
    Messages:
    41
    Likes Received:
    23
    I wouldn't explain the meaning; a lot of meaning can be inferred. For example, if something goes wrong and someone says "Blah!", it's clear what they mean, or "What is blahing happening?" I think it would help to just use a few words, but use them in many situations, so the readers can remember them.
     

Share This Page